Home » Uncategorized » Bill Gates is puzzled by computer science apathy

This is a headline in this morning’s Great Lakes IT Report: “Bill Gates is puzzled by computer science apathy.” I also read a couple of news items with the same story yesterday. If he wants to understand it, all he has to do is sit down with some high school students and he will get his answer. I have and can tell you there are several reasons.

The top reason is counselors are telling these young adults that computer science is a dead end career. Two years ago my son was talking to the Dean of the Math, Science and Technology school in our district. He asked my son what field he was interested in going into and what colleges he was interested in attending. I was in the room to witness the look of horror on the dean’s face when my son noted Computer Science. Then I listened to ten minutes of blah, blah, blah about how all computer jobs were headed to India. Apparently the dean did not realize the field I was in and was not prepared for my ten minutes of counterpointing. The field of Computer Science is not dead in America! So Bill, tell the teachers and counselors in our schools to get a clue before they go off molding the next generations of minds and fill their heads with incorrect information.

Here is a quote from the same article: “Gates said that even if young people don’t know that salaries and job openings in computer science are on the rise, they’re hooked on so much technology – cell phones, digital music players, instant messaging, Internet browsing – that it’s puzzling why more don’t want to grow up to be programmers.” This brings up three interesting points.

  1. The salary issue. At least here in the Midwest, salaries are not on the rise, They are stable, but more important, they are lower than five years ago (simple supply and demand). Even though more people are returning to work, flat out and simple, there are fewer people interested in returning to a job doing programming.
  2. Bill seems to have a different view than I do on this concept. Just because young people are consumers of this technology, does not mean they want to be the one to make it work different in the future. They want it faster and cheaper but in general they want some one else to do all the hard work. Most of my children’s friends could care less about working today. The fact is most of them do not have jobs, nor have their parents provided incentive for them to get to work. What we need are passionate developers, and from my perspective, young people are not passionate about much.
  3. The third point about his quote: programming alone is boring. Bill needs to stress all aspects of Computer Science including interacting with people, understanding their needs, translating needs to design, programming, testing, installation, and production support. So many people miss the mark and think Computer Science is only programming.

The last point I want to make is the career path of Computer Science is not for everyone. I am sure Bill Gates understands this. I believe it requires a special type of person. I can not think of many careers requiring a complete revamp every two years. Sure there are developers still writing COBOL code and are working on the same project for the last 10 years or more, but this is rare. Most developers learn new technologies to better the software they create, to provide better value to their boss and company, to stay ahead of the competition, and even just because they like change. Change is the part of my career I have enjoyed the most. Sure I could have been one of the COBOL programmers working on the same project my entire career, but my personality does not tolerate boredom well. What I am witnessing today is more developers hitting burnout than ever before. So many developers are looking at .NET and questioning if it is worth climbing one more technology learning curve. I believe the next generation entering into college is recognizing this and questioning if it is worth it or not. Do they want to enter into a career where the financial business model for success requires built in obsolescence every 24 months?

So my humble message to Bill Gates is this: you want to understand why this the next generation is apathetic, ask and you will get hours of discussion. This is my personal experience.

3 Responses to “Bill Gates is puzzled by computer science apathy”

  1. September 8th, 2006 at 19:12 | #1

    I liked your analysis, especially the focus on people-orientation rathe than task-orientation – that’s what seems to be “in” these days.

    Part of the problem may be that Bill G has a different definition of “computer science” from the general public. For example my (antiquated) image of computer science is all about compiler writing and chip design, but Bill Gates was probably talking about people who can design new object models and protocols for communication between applications. The world needs at most a few hundred compiler writers and chip designers, most people understand that, so few want to aim for that kind of career.

    Or perhaps Gates simply forgot that the general public’s objectives are different from his – an increase in computer science students would allow him to skim off the cream, but most would-be students want a discipline which is less of a gamble (e.g. MBA).

    By the way, your CAPTCHA is far too easy – in 2004 some California computer scientists announced an algorithm which read the vast majority of CAPTCHAs in use at the time, so robots can easily spam your blog.

    But I like the .wav file for visually disabled users. I’ll investigate this as an accessible way avoid the spam I get via my own site’s email / feedback forms. Thanks!

  2. September 8th, 2006 at 21:55 | #2

    Thanks Philip. Just so you know, the captcha might get solved programmatically, but I also moderate comments on the site, so no spam gets through.

  3. March 23rd, 2009 at 15:34 | #3

    This is awfully late to be responding to this article, but here goes anyway. I agree with everything you say here except I take issue with your notion that computer science is not a dead-end career.

    When I entered the field out of school in 1977, the field was extremely vibrant. There were lots of new-development jobs for highly technically inclined people. Software companies were sprouting up everywhere, and you could make a career at a company where the company product was software and the owner was perhaps a former programmer.

    All this has changed radically. Almost all new software development has indeed moved overseas. Jobs in the U.S. are mainly maintenance jobs, tweaking existing systems and such. You are very unlikely to work at an actual software company, where management understands or cares what you do. More likely you will do a lot of drudgery at some bank or insurance company, where the career ceiling is one or two levels above you, and where you are regarded as a “temp” with approximately the status of a 1960s secretary.

    If you want to make real money today you don’t go into computer science. You go into finance or insurance or some other mainstream finance-oriented field or you get an MBA, learn golf, and schmooz your way into management straight out of school. Movers and shakers in these fields are making more money in their 20s than experienced senior programmers are in their 50s. Seems like almost everybody except Bill Gates has figured that out.

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